Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder
MIRA Books, 409 pgs, 2005
After an undulating first half, buoyed only by a brisk pace of cliff-hangers, Poison Study trips over its own feet, tumbles into a ditch, and promptly dies. Latent magical ability, court intrigue, and assassins, mixed with the threat of international conflict and ardor yield an intriguing premise. So what happened?
At the outset Yelena is dragged from the dungeons and brought before Valek, Ixia’s spymaster. Her choice is simple: mount the gallows or become Commander Ambrose’s food taster, a decadent but traditionally short-lived position in the assassination prone kingdom. She accepts and becomes apprentice to Valek, a sexy man with black ringlets.
Despite the often heavy-handed dialogue I found myself propelled through the first 170 pages. Yelena memorizes properties of countless poisons, makes fast friends, and outwits two squadrons of highly-trained soldiers. Snyder performs adequately here, introducing plot elements and characters with relative ease. It is when story threads collide that she falters. Instead of successful conclusions, characters appear from the ether and make illogical decisions that hold little to no consequence.
Spoilers. Proceed at your own risk. Spoilers.
Several scenes have weighed heavily on me since finishing Poison Study, scenes that warranted a guffaw, or “come on,” or “are you kidding me?” Grab some popcorn and your comfiest blanket. Cozy on up and take note of what to avoid in your next novel.
Exposition Dream Sequences.
The first full-on-dream, not wandering of the mind daydream, but dream occurs around page 280, roughly three-quarters of the way through the novel. While dozing on duty (thanks to copious amounts of wine she’s had to taste for the Commander) Yelena learns Commander Ambrose’s secret. In her drunken stupor she inexplicably slips into his mind… or has a vision of the past (I’m honestly not sure) and discovers that which fuels his vengeance on magicians. When she comes to, she accepts this wholesale. Not “that’s weird,” or “clearly, this can’t be right,” just “this is absolutely what happened and I can’t believe no one saw it before”.
If you’re going to divulge secrets, or any potentially relevant character information, in a dream then, for the love of god, first establish that dreams in your world can hold unquestionable truth before the halfway point of your book. I once had a dream that I chased orcs through army barracks in the desert. I slashed my way through horde after horde but ultimately failed to stop the launching of the nuke. When I woke up in the morning I didn’t grab the morning paper expecting to read about a mushroom cloud over Kansas. At the very least tell me that Yelena was unsure. When she thought about it, it made sense, but how could she prove it, and even if she could would it matter? Maybe she decides to accept the revelation in lieu of a better explanation. But tell me. Otherwise, I now think Yelena is supremely gullible and/or far less intelligent that I previously assumed.
After this reprisal of unnecessary brevity it may not surprise you to learn that this dream-revelation took place in over less than a page. What may surprise you is that, of the following two examples, the longest barely spills over to a second page.
The World’s Fastest Betrayal… Wait… No, sorry… Time to Sacrifice.
In under a page Yelena’s former friend and castle chef, Rand, lures her into a trap in the woods, confesses his betrayal, reveals his motivations and employer, and tells of remorse all before sacrificing himself to save her. Surprise, it’s Rand, trudged up from the depths to expediently wrap up his arc.
Have you ever found yourself, approaching the end of a book, hoping a new character will be introduced that is secretly behind everything? No? You know, like when it delegitimizes everything menacing about the bad guy. No? I haven’t either. Luckily for me, Snyder produced Mogkan—or Kangom, because when a character is doomed to fail make sure there name is an anagram. A man who, for the last sixteen years, has propped up the man we previously assumed to be the main threat and antagonist. My favorite thing about this character that I totally had time get to know and learn to hate, is that he is undone by literally one sentence uttered by our heroine. Astoundingly, all you have to do undermine a decade and a half partnership is to ask if one partner if they really trust the other. Fascinating!
Certainly, these examples are not the only offenders—a certain foreign magician interrupting an acrobatic routine comes to mind. That said, I’d prefer not to reiterate points I’ve already made. Especially considering they are exacerbations of flaws I stated off the bat.
For all my petulance I enjoyed myself (I didn’t finish the book out of masochistic tendencies or purely for spite). Perhaps—no, that is why I care so much. It was infuriating to watch Snyder inhabit Charlie Brown’s shoes and miss that damn football again and again.
I would never advise someone to steer clear of a novel (unless its Heart of Darkness). You may very well enjoy yourself. I hope you do. And if you’ve already journeyed to Ixia and are an avowed fan maybe you can enlighten me on what I’m missing. I’m all ears.
Rating: 2 out of 5 ruined sex scences
Up next: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury